Coronavirus: Bahrain Crown Prince’s expert hails strategy that led to early reopening

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On February 24, the island Kingdom of Bahrain recorded its first COVID-19 case when a school bus driver tested positive for the coronavirus after recently returning from a pilgrimage in Iran.

A few weeks before, Bahrain’s Crown Prince Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa had seen an interview on Sky News with John Ashton, a former regional director of public health in England. Shortly after that, Ashton boarded a flight to Bahrain to advise the island state on its coronavirus response.

“What they asked me to do was to look very hard at the arrangements that they've got to deal with the coronavirus and to be very critical and point out any weaknesses and any problems,” Ashton recalled during an interview with Al Arabiya English.

“I went around everywhere to see what we could find and to look for weaknesses in the chain of control. So, I went to, of course to the war office, which we established very early on for the outbreak,” Ashton added.

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The “war office” Ashton referred to is the operations room set up by Bahraini authorities on February 13 to monitor all COVID-19 related developments.

Operations room staff started training and activation in the days that followed, according to a spokesperson from Bahrain National Communication Center.

“Personnel were familiarized with the crisis communications manual and trained to activate it, alongside the multilingual public awareness campaign. From February 14 to 18, the personnel assessed their readiness and prepared a national response strategy amid the global outbreak of the virus.”

A selfie taken by John Ashton in Bahrain, March 7. (John Ashton, Twitter)
A selfie taken by John Ashton in Bahrain, March 7. (John Ashton, Twitter)

“Trace, Test and Treat” strategy

From the onset, a strategy of containing the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus in Bahrain was focused on the “Trace, Test and Treat” strategy.

“This strategy ensures a comprehensive treatment approach under a specialized medical team,” according to Lt. Col. Dr. Manaf Al Qahtani, infectious diseases consultant and microbiologist at the Bahrain Defense Force (BDF) Hospital and a member of the Kingdom’s National Taskforce for Combating COVID-19.

As of April 21, Bahrain has registered a total number of 1,907 confirmed coronavirus cases, of which 769 recovered and seven died, according to a tally compiled by the Johns Hopkins University.

Bahrain’s rate of death puts it at 0.36 percent compared to 0.98 percent in Saudi Arabia, 0.59 in the United Arab Emirates, 0.14 in Qatar, 0.49 in Oman and 0.45 in Kuwait, making the island Kingdom one of the lowest death rates in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries.

Read more: Coronavirus: With 15,000 cases in the Gulf, here is how GCC states are coping

Ashton, the former regional British public health director, said Bahrain’s relative success in containing the outbreak is due to its proactive, rather than reactive, approach.

Officials proactively began screening people returning to the country, observed Ashton. All arrivals had their temperature taken and were then divided into three groups: healthy, people displaying coronavirus symptoms but tested negative, and people who tested positive. The three groups were then isolated in different areas.

“The approach Bahrain adopted is textbook public health,” Ashton said.

Early and continuous testing allowed early reopening

Another medical expert in Bahrain attributed the country’s relative success to its ability to foresee the crisis early on.

“I believe that Bahrain is exemplary in its efforts towards the control of the coronavirus COVID–19 outbreak. The Kingdom’s preparedness by forming The National Taskforce to Combat the Coronavirus Covid-19, enforcing regulations even before the first case was reported in Bahrain on 24 February 2020 and the preparations are commendable,” said Dr. Randah Ribhi Hamadeh, a professor of community medicine and vice dean for graduate studies and research at Bahrain’s Arabian Gulf University.

Bahrain became one of the first countries in the world to loosen restrictions on movement when on April 9, it allowed shopping malls and some stores to reopen.

“The malls were reopened after the two weeks of closure after ensuring that the mall administration and shop owners were ready to operate under the new circumstances and apply the required control measures by the government like checking temperature, making wearing of masks mandatory as well as social distancing,” Hamadeh added.

Read more: Coronavirus: Bahrain one of first nations to ease lockdown as malls reopen

A model to follow?

Since rolling out early testing, Bahrain has expanded its measures to contain COVID-19.

Officials have used mobile testing units to collect random samples from members of the public. These field tests have focused on obtaining samples from owners of hypermarkets, supermarkets, grocery stores, bakeries and pharmacies as well as the elderly and individuals who are susceptible to COVID-19.

According to the Worldometer's COVID-19 database, Bahrain has so far tested 89,225 people at a rate of 52,437 per million of its population, a ratio second only to the UAE in the Gulf. By comparison, Saudi Arabia has tested 180,000 (5,170 per million), UAE is at 790,000 (79,875 per million) and Qatar is at 64,620 (22,429 per million). No up-to-date data on testing rates in Kuwait or Oman were available at the time of publication.

A member of medical staff wearing a protective face mask and gloves takes a swab from a man during drive-thru coronavirus disease (COVID-19) testing at Bahrain Exhibition Center, in Manama, Bahrain April 9, 2020. (Reuters)
A member of medical staff wearing a protective face mask and gloves takes a swab from a man during drive-thru coronavirus disease (COVID-19) testing at Bahrain Exhibition Center, in Manama, Bahrain April 9, 2020. (Reuters)

On March 19, Bahrain also became the first Arab country to participate in the World Health Organization’s (WHO) “Solidarity Trial” experiment. The program aimed to pool resources to produce a treatment for COVID-19.

“Recognizing that it wasn't alone and seeking to leverage the power of multilateral cooperation, Bahrain was also one of the first countries to sign up to the WHO's SOLIDARITY study, part of an aggressive effort to jumpstart the global search for drugs to treat COVID-19 by means of a multi-country clinical trial for potential coronavirus therapies,” wrote Adam Ereli, the former US Ambassador to Bahrain from 2007 to 2011, in an op-ed published by the United Press International (UPI).

“Countries like Bahrain and Singapore are admittedly not representative of the challenges confronting larger, more decentralized states. Nevertheless, their experience holds valuable lessons for those seeking to manage this crisis,” Ereli added.

But Hamadeh warned that it was too early to compare Bahrain with other GCC countries as a model country in the fight against the coronavirus given its distinct nature of being a small island nation which took measures that fit the demography and geography.

“Although GCC countries are similar in culture and traditions, each country has different geography, demographics, healthcare system, and circumstances. In my opinion, each GCC country is applying the best control measures viewed most appropriate to the country to reduce the health and economic burden inflicted by the coronavirus covid-19 outbreak,” Hamadeh said.

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